Perseverance by Charlie Fenton (2014)
In the nineteenth century and earlier, there was a whole host of fictional Anne Boleyns who were treated by their authors as completely blameless in every way due to the fact that she didn’t really love Henry VIII but was compelled by pressure, and occasionally threats, to marry him. It was all right, these authors assured us, since she didn’t really love him after all. These days, the mirror image of this particular line seems to be growing more popular: that Anne was ultimately blameless because, far from being emotionally removed from Henry, she was actually so obsessively in love with him that she couldn’t help doing whatever was necessary in order to be with him, and since our century rates personal happiness as the prime virtue, what else could we possibly expect her to do? It was all right, we’re told now, since she really, really loved him. This book is a prime example of the latter way of thinking.
We open with the Masque of the Chateau Vert – Anne is, as she was historically, and Mary is Kindness, which Anne notes is appropriate because she is kind “At least, she is kind to the King.” She was kind to the French king as well, years earlier, but far from spurning Mary’s wanton ways, as she does in most books, this Anne is just a bit jealous of all the attention Mary gets. “I was the younger, forgotten sister.” She goes so far as to tell Mary that if she were in Mary’s place “I’d have to do the same. I would sleep with the King.” Since her parents and husband will all be receiving gifts from a grateful monarch, it would be positively selfish of her not to, after all.
Anne gets Henry’s attention not at the Chateau Vert, but several years later, after she’s been recalled to court (having presumably worked off her penance for the Henry Percy business). Mary is heavily pregnant, the queen is past her dancing days, but Anne is still young and energetic. And much like the Anne in Le Temps Viendra, she attracts the king’s notice in two ways: by her talent for dancing, and by her complete lack of artifice.
Some of us could still dance. As the strings started, I smiled to myself, letting the tune carry me away as my slow sway built slowly into a dance. Before long, the music ran through my entire body, and I closed my eyes, ignoring everyone around me as I spun across the floor.
Yes – I believed it with all my heart. This is what it felt like to be truly free.
But then the music stopped, and when I opened my eyes, it seemed like the eyes of the entire court were upon me. And there, in the centre, was the one person who had never noticed me before.
Poor Mary, with her artifice and her rule-following and obedience, doesn’t stand a chance against Anne now. Much to the dismay of them both, the King promptly begins sending messages, gifts, and requests for audiences of an unspecified nature to Anne, finally nailing his standard to the mast publicly by carrying the “Declare I Dare Not” banner at a joust and refusing to acknowledge the paternity of Mary’s son Henry Carey once he’s born. “The King said he wouldn’t acknowledge our son because it would ruin my reputation,” Mary tells Anne, and they both politely pretend to believe that this is in fact true. Thomas Boleyn feels no such need for pretense. Upon realizing that Mary’s time is up and Anne is in the ascendant, he briskly washes his hands of the former – “Now you have to look after your two bastards and face the consequences” – and orders Anne to write a flirtatious letter to the King inviting him to Hever, in order to make sure his attraction to her stays current. Anne is horrified at the idea of driving “a wedge between us three Boleyn children” but ultimately agrees. “What choice did I have?”
She manages to keep him at bay for a good long time, though – first out of “respect for my sister’s dignity” (as she tells Henry) and secondly because she’s heard the longstanding rumours of a possible divorce and the thought starts to flicker across her mind – could she become queen herself? She never mentions it, but luckily for her the same idea soon occurs independently to Henry, who promptly charges Wolsey to find a way to make this happen. In the meantime, Anne returns to court, having by now fallen thoroughly in love with Henry despite her occasional guilty thoughts of Mary and her children. Since we don’t get much of Henry’s conversation (though his letters are quoted at length) it’s mostly his animal magnetism and political power doing the attracting. Anne does have one very awkward conversation with Queen Catherine in which she (Anne) reveals just how out of step with her century she is by trying to guilt-trip Catherine about Henry. “You want him to be happy … don’t you?” Catherine insists that she does and it seems that her main objection to Anne is that she believes she’s being used by her social climbing family and doesn’t really want the king to be happy. It’s telling that both women take it utterly for granted that being happy is the most important thing in life, and that even the extremely devout Catherine doesn’t have any arguments to make about whether Henry can really be happy if he’s disobeying God.
The divorce drags on, with Anne whining continually about how it seems like nobody is on their side, and after the vaguely-described back and forth negotiations between the Vatican, Henry, Wolsey, and Wolsey’s successors, we’re brought at last to Calais in 1532, where Henry and Anne decide to exchange private vows before giving in and sleeping together, so that no future child of theirs can have its legitimacy impinged. Anne duly acquires a hankering to eat apples (first telling Henry, then showing off in front of Thomas Wyatt) and the first nine months of her reign are as ideal as it’s possible for them to be – a state of affairs which ends with a crash when she gives birth to Elizabeth in September of 1533. Henry makes himself appear pleased, but he makes it clear that a boy is expected next time, without fail – and lo and behold, Anne promptly becomes pregnant again. Her New Year’s gift to Henry for 1534 – a golden fountain featuring three women with water flowing from their breasts – is a roundabout way of announcing to him that she’s pregnant again (well, it does look like they’re lactating, right?) That pregnancy ends in a stillbirth at the end of June of that year, after which Henry, in an unusual move even for him, decides that they’ll just pretend it was a mistake and there was no child, in order that nobody should start comparing this stillbirth with Catherine’s multiple disasters and drawing their own conclusions about his chances for getting a healthy legitimate son. Even more unusually, he tells George Boleyn to beg off on a diplomatic visit using the lateness of Anne’s pregnancy as an excuse – even though that pregnancy has already ended badly. I never did quite figure out what the goal was there.
Relations between Anne and Henry were somewhat strained even before all of this, since he had taken up with Elizabeth Somerset, Lady Worcester, to keep himself occupied during Anne’s pregnancy. The end of 1534 and most of 1535 is a welter of heartburning over the fact that Henry could bring himself to take a mistress when Anne loved him more than Catherine possibly could, along with a small dose of politics in which Anne wrings her hands over the deaths of Fisher and More and realizes too late that she should have intervened somehow for the latter, since he did support their marriage, just not the larger break. Since this revelation doesn’t come until after she gets news of his death, she’s left as ineffectual as always. She has further troubles when Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, is banished from court because she tried to pick a fight with Lady Worcester at Anne’s request (very unusually, Jane is here presented as a sweet and supportive sister-in-law who’s much more popular with Anne than her actual sister). At long last, Lady Worcester is ousted and Madge Shelton flirts her way into the former’s place. She doesn’t do this because Anne told her to (as she does in some books) but Anne is somewhat relieved to have her there, even if she’s still annoyed, simply because Madge is her cousin and can be counted on not to do real damage to the Boleyn prospects. Nonetheless, Anne attempts to frighten off any other aspiring mistresses by telling Jane Boleyn loudly, and in front of a lot of witnesses, that the king is actually a very poor article in bed. It isn’t true, but nonetheless it will come back to haunt her after her arrest.
Anne’s miscarriage (after she dances in yellow to celebrate Catherine’s death) is treated as being a severe setback but not the foreordained end of her marriage. Eric Ives’s biography has clearly informed this novel, as it has many other recent ones, as its account of Anne’s downfall runs very much according to his hypothesis: Anne confronts Cromwell over misuse of confiscated monastic assets and has John Skip preach a sermon comparing herself to Esther and Cromwell to Haman, and Cromwell’s return volley is to have her and her supporters arrested and executed in short order. Anne’s final thought, as her brainstem is severed, is of Elizabeth.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, all the way. Henry Percy is taken from Anne greatly against his will, and after she rejects Thomas Wyatt (since he has nothing to offer except the position of mistress) the lesson she extracts from these experiences is that “men didn’t give up. I would have to outlast them.” She spends a great deal of time outlasting political opponents over the next few years, but if you don’t already know the background you’ll get only a very sketchy notion of what any of these people stood for or believed, though she’ll note if they were in favour of the divorce or not. Her religious inclinations are also unclear – she throws in a few references to reading banned books, and says early on that “I did not believe in the Pope’s authority like Henry did,” but you’ll look for a long time if you want her to explain why she doesn’t believe in it or what specific Catholic doctrines and practices (official or unofficial) she objects to.
WHEN BORN? Mary is the eldest, Anne is in the middle and George is the youngest; the exact difference in ages isn’t specified but Anne can barely remember George’s birth, so they’re probably about three to four years apart. She also speaks briefly of her brothers Thomas and Henry, who died as babies, but it’s not clear if she actually remembers them.
THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy is a sweet-natured, attractive, and of course very highly-placed young man who makes Anne go weak at the knees (literally – she mentions her love for him being of the sort that “makes my knees shake”). However, he’s been engaged to Mary Talbot for a number of years and Anne is still, technically, engaged to James Butler (about whom she voices no opinion, and whom we never see). After a lot of indecisiveness, Anne and Percy make vows de futuro with George and Mary as witnesses, although Mary is certain that their romance is doomed since they haven’t got approval from the king, Wolsey, or any of their parents. Of course, she’s right, as it turns out – Anne and Percy act a little too openly affectionate in front of other people at court, and eventually Wolsey catches on and furiously separates them, while kiboshing Anne’s engagement to James Butler for good measure. When Anne sees Percy again ten years later, she realizes that she feels nothing for him any more – he was merely “a first love”, unlike the king.
After Anne is banished to Hever, Thomas Wyatt comes sniffing around and hoping to make his long-standing crush on Anne into something a little more active. He’s just separated from his wife, and thoughtfully offers to make Anne his long-term mistress. She’s not quite as insulted by this as one would expect, but she still doesn’t think it’s enough – “I did not want to be a mistress. I wanted to marry a good man with a good status,” she informs the reader. “A poet who had just separated from his wife wasn’t a good match.” Well, she’s not wrong about that. Later on, she’ll inform George very somberly that although she loves Wyatt, she’s not in love with him, thereby anticipating millions of future undergraduates who would seriously believe that they were the first people to come up with this line.
THE QUEEN’S BEES Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford is the most prominent, and unusually, she’s firmly in Anne’s camp and is a good friend to her – more of a sister than Mary, Anne herself notes. Jane picks a fight with Henry’s mistress at Anne’s request and is rusticated for her pains, but even after that she doesn’t hold a grudge. Elizabeth Somerset, Lady Worcester, is the mistress in question (the “very handsome young lady” mentioned by Chapuys as having won Henry’s favour for a period in 1534) and after the affair ends, Anne patches up her own relationship with her – hence her concern, after her arrest, that Lady Worcester’s child “did not stir in her body … for sorrow she took of me.” Madge Shelton also gets a bit part, but doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary: she flirts with Norris and Weston and does more than that with the king, and of course Anne rebukes her for the “idle poesies” in her prayerbook. Jane Seymour is described as being extremely pale (with the implication that this is a failing) and “barely literate – she was lucky to be in my service at all.” She doesn’t do a whole lot except wail when Anne tears a pendant with Henry’s portrait off her neck. Anne (Nan) Gainsford is described as being Anne’s maid of honour and closest friend at court, next to Lady Rochford, but we only see her during the episode with the stolen illicit book which Anne reclaims from Cardinal Wolsey.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Mark Smeaton has one foot in this category, as he’s described as having no particular ambitions and living only to sing and entertain. Although it’s noted, correctly, that Smeaton belonged to the king’s household, Anne says that she was so impressed with his talent that she brought him over to hers on a number of occasions.
THE PROPHECY None notable.
IT’S A GIRL! Henry looks disappointed but pulls it together once the midwife hands Elizabeth to him. “You’re not angry?” Anne asks him, and he laughs and reassures her: “Of course not. We’re still young, boys will follow.” Anne is reassured but slightly nervous that “we needed to have a son next.”
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No
FAMILY AFFAIRS Julia Fox’s biography of Lady Rochford seems to be trickling down into novelistic consciousness at last; in this version of Anne’s story, she’s alternatively loving towards, exasperated with and jealous of her sister Mary, whereas she and Jane Boleyn are close friends to the bitter end. Jane and George are happily married; their only disappointment is their childlessness.
Thomas Boleyn runs a lot truer to stereotype – he’s a coldhearted, practical climber in the classic manner. He’s thrilled to have Mary as Henry’s long-term mistress, but when Mary is set aside for Anne (without her children being acknowledged) he’s briskly picking up the pieces and adjusting his plans even as both of his daughters are still in shock. “I am lucky to have two daughters, and now, Anne, you can learn from your sister’s mistakes.” His wife, again true to stereotype, is loyal to him but more openly affectionate to her daughters – Anne is grateful for her mother’s love, but is well aware that “she was still always on [her husband’s] side.”
Mary is the prettier daughter, the older daughter, and in the early days, the victorious daughter. “That was the thing about Mary. She always won.” Anne is seethingly jealous of all the attention Mary gets and it’s only after Mary’s unceremoniously dumped by the king that Anne decides that the life of a mistress is worth a lot of effort to avoid. George is his standard-issue self; rational, intelligent, with a strong sense of humour. The thing that distinguishes him here is the fact that he’s happily married to Jane and doesn’t appear to be involved in any Cavendish-inspired escapades – though of course, since he’s off with the diplomatic for months a time and Anne has no idea what he does there, there’s still the potential for that sort of thing.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, though it’s implied that Norris at least has genuine feelings for her, so when he says he would tarry a while before marrying Madge Shelton, he really means it.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The language is too modern, and it becomes very noticeable. “Okay,” says George at one point, and Anne writes “a robotic reply” to one of Henry’s early, unwelcome letters, heedless of the fact that the term “robot” wouldn’t enter the English language until the twentieth century. There are grammatical errors which could be caught with a good editing (incorrect use of “forbid” and “lay” especially). The book isn’t badly produced but it could use a good editor’s pencil nonetheless.
ERRATA The author has clearly done a lot of reading – my main objections to the facts as presented is not what’s put in but what gets left out (couldn’t the name of Clement VII’s papal successor have been mentioned just once?) Henry refers to Elizabeth of York as “my grandmother” – since he’s holding the newborn Elizabeth at the time, this is presumably a slip for “her grandmother.” There are a few errors that were probably just a result of ignorance – all the characters sit in chairs routinely despite the fact that no maid of honour would aspire to sit on anything more than a stool in the queen’s presence, and when Anne is requesting fish from Cardinal Wolsey’s stewponds, her mother makes a request for tuna. I’m not sure how big the tuna were in Tudor England, but these days they range between six and fifteen feet long. It would be an impressive stewpond that could comfortably host even a few of those monsters.
WORTH A READ? While I did enjoy seeing a non-villainous Jane Boleyn and the alternative takes on episodes like Anne’s declaration that Henry was terrible in bed, I would have to say no. The characters and episodes aren’t fleshed out enough and the language is jarring – it feels like an embryonic version of a good novel, or a first draft of one which needs some work. And Anne herself, despite the title, doesn’t come across as especially persistent. Passive-aggressive and stubborn, yes, but that’s about as far as she goes.
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